After her son Willie’s death at age eleven on February 20, 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln went into deep mourning. She traded in her sparkling jewels, frilly white and colorful gowns, and flowered bonnets made fashionable by her icon the French Empress Eugénie (click to read earlier post) for widow’s weeds of dull black crepe. Her stylish White House parties were put to the side. Gaiety gave way to sadness. Mary had lost her favorite son, the perfect one, the one she considered most like her husband.
After Willie died, Mary’s youngest son, eight-year-old Tad, still tossed with the same typhoid fever that killed his brother. He lay critically ill nearby, but Mary, incapacitated by grief, would not and did not rush to his side to nurse him. Meanwhile, Willie’s embalmed body was laid out in the Green Room of the White House and his coffin was open. Mary mustered enough energy to place a sprig of laurel on Willie’s chest before retreating to her bedroom and shutting the door. She took to her bed, weeping and sobbing in such uncontrolled spasms that she became quite ill.
She did not come out of her bedroom to attend Willie’s funeral and never again entered the Green Room or the second floor guest room where Willie died. She rid the house of all of Willie’s toys and clothes and forbade his and Tad’s best friends, the Taft boys, from ever returning to the White House to play.
During Mary’s tormented period, Abraham, also heartbroken at his son’s death, sent for help. Two of Mary’s friends, a nurse, and Mary’s sister Elizabeth heeded the calling. One of the friends was the esteemed Washington seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. In memoirs she wrote with a ghostwriter six years later, she recalled a day when President Lincoln led his distraught wife (whom he called “Mother”) to the window, pointed to the lunatic asylum at a distance from the White House, and said,
“Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief or it will drive you mad and we may have to send you there.”
It was three weeks before Mary could even be persuaded to get up out of bed and put on her mourning clothes. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) now became the First Lady’s fashion model. Victoria’s husband Prince Albert had died unexpectedly just three months earlier and Victoria had plunged herself and her entire staff into the deep black dress of mourning. Following Victoria’s lead and further compounding her debt to clothing merchants (click to read an earlier post), Mary Lincoln ordered an entire new wardrobe of dull black crepe dresses, bonnets, and weeping veils.
For more than a year, six months longer than was called for in the mourning manuals of the day, Mary wore first-degree mourning. Her black crepe straw bonnet was so heavily veiled that she could not turn her head, which gave her an odd appearance as she was always facing forward. She became a very public mourner. She wanted to draw attention to her grief as if she was the only one who had lost a child at a time when Civil War soldiers were dying in record numbers from Mississippi to Maryland on the nation’s bloody battlefields. During her mourning, she cancelled the Saturday afternoon Marine Band Concerts held on the White House lawn, explaining that, “When we are in sorrow, quiet is necessary.” She bought black jet jewelry to accent her sooty “widow’s weeds” and used writing paper with the thickest margins of black.
Finally, in 1863, Mary ordered another new wardrobe, running up yet more bills, and moved into the stage known as half-mourning, exchanging her lusterless black for fabric in lavender, gray, and somber purples with a little touch of white at the wrist. (1)
Click here to access my related post, “The Madness of Mary Lincoln.” Also, for more posts on the Lincolns, view the drop down menu, “Categories,” in the left column, find at the top, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and click.
(1) Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987)